Thursday, November 26, 2009

Speak to Me

Talking this spring with Sebastian Rilling, a German teenager who was learning English, French, and Italian in addition to his native tongue in school (see July 16 post) brought to mind how different educational systems can be. We don’t train American high school students that broadly or intensely in languages.

Until fairly recently, it didn’t matter much. The British forgave us for butchering their language; people in other lands who wanted to do business internationally learned English. We rarely had to be able to speak anything but our own language to get by in most parts of the world.

But now there is new emphasis on linguistics. We woke up to a serious problem when military commanders ordered our soldiers to “win the hearts and minds” of legions of mostly illiterate Arabs without being able to talk to them. If not impossible, that mission is extremely difficult.

Some critics of our educational system claim we never included foreign languages. That is not true. My high school in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, for many years offered two years of training . . . in Latin. My parents demanded that I sign up to learn the ancient language, as did others who thought their little darlings might be headed toward higher education. The theory was that Latin was the root of many languages, and understanding it would help us understand all sorts of things.

My high school freshman year, 1949, was a milestone in language education at Tomahawk High School. Spanish classes were offered for the first time. The reasons for the new courses were different than those that prompted all the years of Latin offerings. Our school board was told that millions of people near our borders spoke Spanish, and it would be useful to be able to talk to Latinos. That line of thinking turned out to be correct. Millions of those millions now live in the USA. I didn’t sign up for Spanish lessons in 1949, but now I wish I had.

The Latin taught by Mrs. Harriet Borkenhagen, a lovely lady who was strict in the classroom, did help me now and then to understand the meaning of various words used by Americans and others. Nowadays, it often helps me solve the daily crossword. Latin training never helped me talk to anyone. Not many years after 1949 only a few old priests still spoke Latin.

A pseudo-Latin phrase did provide daily encouragement for years when I started off to face the rigors of the workplace. A sign on our garage wall said:

Illegitimi non Carborundum

The saying is not proper Latin, and the translation is pretty loose, but the thought was helpful:

“Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down”

1 comment:

joared said...

The problem with the American education system is they don't respect the universal study results that have shown we learn another language most easily BEFORE the age of puberty. Our public schools don't start teaching foreign languages until puberty, in Jr. Hi, others not until High School. I wonder when the thinking in this great nation will move beyond the parochial level.